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Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, Paths to Power


Main takeaways

Meta lessons:

  • Change is a behavior, not a personality shift; don’t take this too hard
  • Get out of your own way: don’t worry about likability, inauthenticity, fairness, failure, rules
  • Be clear on what you want and make the tradeoffs required

How to influence others:

  • Self enhancement: we love to think well of ourselves, talk other people up
  • We love ourselves, and things that remind us of ourselves: create social overlap and remind people of what you have in common
  • Change people’s minds by separating them from the problem, don’t hold them accountable, or they will retrench. “Any reasonable person would have done what you did, but now you have new information”
  • We want to associate with success, and distance ourselves from failure; this is especially true if those we compare ourselves to are similar to us; be powerful, play down failures
Cycle of power and its influence on others

Power leads others to both like us and perceive our actions as justified. This happens through rationalization (“Boys will be boys”) and decoupling (“That behaviour isn’t relevant to the issue at hand”)

How to get power

  • Stop thinking the world is a fair place: perceptions of success drive success, perceptions of failure drive future failure
  • Don’t trust popular wisdom / “leaders” on how they achieved success, they won’t tell you the battle stories and they are powerful because of how they package their stories
  • Get out of your own way: self-surrender and putting obstacles in your way (self handicapping) are surefire ways to prevent success. The #1 way to achieve power: try!

Case: Jack Dorsey, “All is fair in love and twitter, NYT magazine” Key takeaways: How did Dorsey go about becoming a “technology visionary” and high-profile entrepreneur?

  1. Joined well regarded entrepreneurs who shared personal similarities
  2. Built deep relationships with the co-founders
  3. Suggested ideas for key initiatives + ride the wave
  4. Pushed out competition when they are weak
  5. Built connections to others in other companies for leverage
  6. Used media / public stories to rewrite your founding narrative with yourself at the center

Power is the ability to get your way in a contested situation, such as how to get a promotion in a zero sum game. It isn’t free, however, and can come at a cost to your family, legacy, ethics and relationships. That said, we excuse the bad behaviour of the powerful.

We tend to self-inhibit, because we worry about how others perceive us. The truth is, _others don’t think about us_. “You are as qualified to do anything as anyone else”: unwarranted self-confidence predicts being selected for a task. This then engages a self-fulfilling prophecy. Incidentally, narcissism is one of the best predictors of power.

Stages of the class:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Sadness
  4. Acceptance

The trick to learning about and gaining power: don’t be judgemental. It is the source of all unhappiness. Don’t confuse what is with what should be.

It’s OK that people don’t like you

Almost every successful business reinvents their industry. You will need to change the rule and sometimes break them. This means you must use high variance strategies – they won’t work all the time, but higher risk results in greater reward. To do this, you must be willing to be deviant and seen as an outsider.
  • Play to your strengths: uniquely add value, use your comparative advantage
  • Ask for what you want.
    • The norm is to say “yes”.
    • By saying yes, they build on the relationship, and will say “yes” to bigger asks later.
    • Asking people flatters them, as it implies they are powerful enough to help you
  • People above you are not responsible for your career, you are responsible for making them want to make you successful
  • Peers < upwards relationships
  • “You can’t be an absolute asshole, you also can’t be incompetent” Keith
  • “If you want to be successful, you deal with the people around you, forgive flaws, and serve your boss”

Get yourself in the right place

How to choose the right place:

  • Niche - not too much competition and a unique fit for you
  • Access to management + visibility + knowledge
  • Ability to define your role + flexibility
  • Job pointed towards the future
  • Access to resources
  • Access to rising stars
  • Ability to control the narrative of the position
  • Interesting to you

Occasionally, your boss / patron will leave. To survive this you must:

  • Seem neutral + objective
  • Cope / succeed in many cultures
  • Know when to give up

Lessons from Zia Yusef

  1. Don’t follow the herd mentality to “what’s hot”, try to see around the corner
  2. Create a network of people you’ve helped without expectation of paying off. This will help in the long run
  3. Have at least 1 year of “f*ck you” money, so that you can afford to get fired. Have risks and projects you could get fired / leave over.
  4. Don’t optimize for titles and money in the short term, optimize for learning
  5. Have the courage to have tough conversations, ask for support or get fired
  6. Take time to do a thorough job search (months)
  7. Understand the business logic (map it out)

How to present yourself

A study has found that the upperclass is more comfortable with “machiavellian” sytle of self-presentation, ethics and values stand in the way for the lowerclass.

There exists two fundamental dimensions of how we evaluate others personalities: warmth and competence. Although these do not need to lie on opposite sides of the spectrum, we percieve that they do. “If your are so nice, it is probably because you need to be” is the logic people follow. Agreeableness has a negative correlation to earnings for men.

If you need to lead with a way of presenting yourself, two basic rules:

  1. if the consequences matter, choose to lead with competence
  2. if the consequences don’t matter, lead with warmth

You must give something to get something, you can create resources from nothing by:

  • Trading on information (be an expert at something boring / poorly understood but important)
  • Holding access to money / budget (manage the budget)
  • Become a powerbroker / set the agenda (be the note taker)

Build your personal brand

Lessons from the guest speaker: Tristan Walker

  • Focus, don’t diversity
  • Be tenatious and persistant
  • Use status associations to your benefit (name drop)
  • Measure how you spend your time, ensure it aligns to your strategy (academic, professional, relationships)
  • Get a PR person now (be intentional with the media as early as possible)
  • Get yourself out in the public sphere and have a point of view, you will repel some people and attract others, but better than being neutral to everyone.
  • “The trials you go through are lessons, the lessons are blessings.”


  • Be proactive and inclusive, this will help you build “weak ties”.
  • Don’t follow the crowd, but find your unique market and pursue it.
  • Be focused in your conversation, dig deep into your story and choose a compelling focus area
  • Your classmates are your best network, easiest to establish and will be broad and powerful
  • Figure out what areas you love before you get stuck
  • If you are not the “networking type” and don’t want to try, then find a partner who is

How to influence others and get them on your side

  • Copy them physically, mimic their movements but with a 4+ second lag
  • People want to associate with successful people, so portray yourself as successful
  • It’s not about you, it’s about them
  • People don’t want to know the truth, they want to reinforce their decisions (confirmation bias)
  • No-one will have more confidence in you than you have in yourself

If you have a difficult relationship, try to find similarities and accentuate them

How to speak and act with power

  • Be an agent (have control)
  • Own the events
  • Be hostile / forceful / strong in language
  • Use vivid language
  • Use simple sentences and declarative language

You want your leader to represent you, and make you feel proud. If you are the leader, acting weakly will undermine how people feel internally.

Responding strategically in an emotional situation

The strategic response model

Follow the strategic response model:

  • Act angry, don’t be angry; emotions cloud your mind; what is your objective? Be in control first, then chose your tactic
  • Don’t say “thanks” for a shit sandwich; say “hm, that is new information, can we follow up offline / later to get more clarity?”

How to avoid losing power

  1. When you are destroyed, it will be because of someone close to you (spousal murder is highest, trust “few” and be wary of your friends)
  2. Watch for disagreements: when a courteous tone turns dismissive and combative.
  3. Understand what matters most to those around you (Power? Flattery? Both?) [Aside, no amount of flattery is too much, proven by Frank Flynn]
  4. Understand the heart, not just the head; play to people’s emotions not just the bottom line


  • Find a mentor based on their power and ability to help your career
  • “When you can do it, you are not bragging” -- Talk about your achievements